The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is bringing a previously reluctant process industry into the wireless fold. The ability to connect smart sensors to the Internet has spiked the demand for wireless devices in process manufacturing, according to the new study from ARC Advisory Group, "Industrial Internet of Things to Spur Growth of Wireless Devices in Process Manufacturing."
The benefits driving this demand include improved decision support, increased collaboration, reduced costs, and improved business performance. Not a bad package of benefits. Combine this with today's increasingly robust and reliable wireless technology, and you have a value proposition that is too compelling for plant managers to ignore. Obstacles such as competing industrial wireless standards at the sensor level are becoming less daunting.
The ARC report reveals that wireless measurements are reducing implementation costs significantly compared with wired solutions. In other cases, wireless measurements -- particularly condition monitoring for plant asset management -- are now both practical and affordable, which results in a short return on investment (ROI).
The value is in the measurement
The age-old business principal -- you can't improve what you can't measure -- is applicable to wireless connectivity in plants. "It comes down to not managing what you can't measure. The IIoT increases the measurement points, improves the process, and allows you to improve the condition of the equipment," Allen Avery, senior analyst for automation at ARC and author of the report, told Design News.
Condition monitoring is a big application in process manufacturing. It lets managers assess the health of plant assets and replace worn equipment before it breaks down. "Asset management studies show that predictive maintenance programs support better decisions about whether to take an asset offline or run it to fail," said Avery. "Wireless monitoring enables you to quickly get all those measurement points. It increases visability for MES (manufacturing execution systems) and collaborative production management."
Cost of implementation
Shifting to wireless may be costly, but once the change has been made, further implementations are usually less costly. For one, you don't have to run wire everywhere -- sometimes in very difficult places. "Your first implementation of wireless may be more expensive than you expect, but you have to look at the benefit over the lifetime of the implementation," said Avery. "If you look at hardwired connections, there's no comparison. You can move sensors around quickly and easily, and the maintenance is a no-brainer."
Lingering concerns about wireless
Avery notes that the process industries have always been conservative when adopting new technology, especially when managers find that the tried-and true technology works. They are only interested in new technology if it clearly delivers process improvements -- more uptime and availability.
Recently, industry users have begun to shake off their concerns about wireless technology, opting to harness the operational benefits that wireless affords, rather than sit on the fence. "For too long, plant managers have talked about wireless, but they sat on the sidelines waiting for the standards to coalesce. That was an obstacle to adoption," said Avery. "But the benefits now are too great to ignore while waiting for standards, so they are saying, 'Let's just do it.' We're seeing signs of this."
Are companies in the mood to spend?
The target ROI for plants is about 12 to 18 months. Yet if you're able to avoid shutdowns with new technology, the cost makes up for itself in avoiding lost production and getting increased availability. "There's a willingness to shake off the concern and adopt wireless, definitely a willingness to spend," said Avery.
What's necessary is the ability to more closely monitor the health of the equipment, establish a baseline, see how the equipment is running, look for subtle anomalies or trouble with the process, and improve measurement. "Companies are looking to avoid capital expenditures or push them off as long as they can," said Avery. "They will use wireless connectivity to keep the equipment running. Wireless helps to keep from upgrading the equipment."
What about wireless standards?
According to ARC, WirelessHART and ISA100.11a standards are continuing to gain footholds at the sensor level. The majority of the process wireless market will gravitate away from legacy proprietary solutions that accounted for a large share of the market in 2014. Along with this shift, ARC is seeing a migration away from standalone point-to-point installations in favor of mesh-based, inherently redundant device level solutions that interface to a WiFi-based plant or facility backbone.
The industry is ready to shift to wireless even while the standards issue heats up. "The fieldbus wars of the past are a lesson. Standards are political and they're a touchy subject," said Avery. "Standards are important, but it depends on what you're comfortable with. There is plenty of room for both standards. It appears not to be a big impediment to adoption. Only time will tell what is going to happen with the standards."
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Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 15 years, 12 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine, Chile Pepper.